5 Magazine’s Czarina Mirani goes behind the scenes of Queen!, Chicago’s Sunday night residency at SmartBar with Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini, Garrett David, Jojo Baby, Sissy Spastik, Jay Jay and a cast of thousands.
Photos by SmartBar, Erik Kommer, Tasya Menaker, Bryan Meeker & Louis Lazu. The cover photo of Nico by Erik Kommer.
At only 3 and a half years old, Smartbar’s Sunday QUEEN party is clearly on a path to gaining the title of legendary. Running the helm are residents Michael Serafini, Derrick Carter, Garrett David and up until his passing, our beloved Frankie Knuckles. The story of QUEEN! reads like a fairy tale, albeit a twisted one with its interesting cast. It defied nightclub’s laws of gravity, enabling it to rise to be one of Chicago’s biggest parties with an international status. From the lavishly decorated hosts that greet you at the door, to the uplifting music that sweeps over you as you descend Smartbar’s stairs, everything about this party feels just right.
Resident Michael Serafini is also the owner of Chicago’s Gramaphone Records. While closing up his store one quiet Wednesday night, we talk about the baby steps they took to create what is now one of Chicago’s most revered parties.
Let’s talk about the origins of that Sunday party, didn’t you initially have a disco night with Kyle Woods?
Dollar Disco was what was first, which was Garrett David, myself and Kyle. It lasted about 3 or 4 years, and when Kyle decided he wanted to end it and get more into production (he started working for Windham), he asked if I would like to stay on. So we talked to Nate Seider (the talent buyer at the time), and he said “Would you like to stay on and do something? Maybe we could do a gay night.” So Byrd Bardot and I thought that we should do a night that’s like Boom Boom Room. We felt like the kids needed something new, a night to call their own. An underground House party that is in the vein of the old school underground, gay, industry House parties. So we brought it to Nate, he said let’s try it, and that’s how QUEEN started.
Who were the original resident DJs exactly?
Derrick Carter, Garret David and myself were the originals. We also talked to Louis Lazu, Tin and Donovan of the Paradise Soul parties on Sundays to work together and we would do their parties once a month or so. We had been throwing a couple of parties with Frankie Knuckles, so I asked him, “Since you’ve been throwing parties with us and you like it here, why don’t we do something more?” And so he became one of the residents because he felt comfortable there and liked the party.
In terms of a musical direction, did you have a specific sound that you had in mind?
The music is just what it happens to be. It could change. Right now that aesthetic is very 90’s because we just gravitate towards that. It’s a sound that has not really been delved into. Everybody does disco nights, everybody does all kinds of other nights, but you don’t hear as much vocal 90’s House stuff. You might hear a lot of reworks and re-edits but you don’t hear a lot of the original stuff, and a lot of that stuff is really good! It’s the last great era of House music. Of when you heard really great House music with words in it.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “QUEEN is the hottest Sunday night party cultivated from Joe Shanahan’s 35+ year vision of blending the hottest resident DJ sounds of Chicago House and Disco. This party is proudly recognized around the world and we’re striving to take things to a higher level week by week!” –Lenny Lacson, SmartBar general manager [/quote]
And the vinyl thing?
I play records and Garrett plays records. Frankie didn’t play any records, Chez Damier doesn’t play records, it just happens to be that we do and a lot of the people that like our night also play records, but people play what they want to play.
It’s fascinating because the older gay crowd loves House, but that wasn’t always the case with the younger crowd. I remember for a long time all they wanted to hear was Hip-hop.
They fell away from it for a while. It’s like anything, when you start a group of people you find people that have a similar like. It’s about the hosts, about the people that go there, it’s about that space. People liked that space. It’s a cool, basement space. You can play the best music anywhere and it’s not going to work all the time. It’s everything combined to make it work. People love to go there and see other people get crazy, talk to the sassy bartenders. We just found people that we liked, who we wanted to be a part of the night, people who were professional yet had character.
So what were some of your initial challenges in the beginning?
Getting people in the door [laughs]. Getting people in the door so they would stop complaining that we weren’t getting people in the door.
And how long did that take?
A long time! Especially in these days, where with nightclubs the bottom line is about money. Back in the day, you’d open up a club because that’s what you wanted to do and you had them play the music you wanted, and people would either show up or not. If you were a resident DJ at a club, some nights were dead and some nights were packed. They didn’t say to you as a DJ, “Oh we’re going to have to let you go because no one is coming here.” When Joe Smooth and Jesse De La Pena were residents of Smartbar back in the day, they didn’t have the management every week go “Oh there’s no one here. We’re going to have to get rid of you and get another DJ.” They played whether it was dead or busy.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “QUEEN works because it’s a good party with good DJs playing good music. Good staff being decent and fair. And good bartenders who can handle themselves as needed. We aren’t trying to be the fiercest or the “go-go-est”. We aren’t playing that game that so many other gay themed events play, Having pictures of half-naked boys and playing that top 40, lowest common denominator music which is so prevalent in Boystown and seemingly a gay necessity. We ain’t tryna get down like that. Keep it cute, with great bartenders that will pour the hell out of a drank, cute hosts that add the right amount of fun and beat the shit out of them tunes.” –Derrick Carter [/quote]
Was your philosophy to deemphasize the guests and make it more about the residents?
It’s about the party. And it’s about the residents. We like having guests, but we want guests who fit the party and it’s not about making a big deal because the guest is there. These days everybody wants to know who’s going to be the guest DJ this week, and I think people are a little bored with that. There are very few parties that people just go to the club because they want to go to that party. That was what we wanted QUEEN to be. The guest DJ is the bonus.
And the resident DJs close 90 percent of the time. This is our party, and we close it out. That’s the way it should be, because there are people that come there every week and why should they have to take a chance on somebody who may not close the party out properly?
You have your regulars that come, and they’re your promotions. They’re the ones who spread the word and talk about how much they love the night. So you want to keep them happy.
The personality of the party is perfectly captured by your hosts. Tell me about them.
We have Sissy Spastik and Jojo Baby. Jojo has been with us since the beginning, him and Sal-E came from Boom Boom Room. We also had Ruby Dee, Mr. Wallace and Lucy Stoole for a while. Byrd Bardot started the night with me initially.
What are some musical observations you’ve had from spinning this party?
They love to hear a classic thrown in there. They love to hear a nice big vocal track. What I’ve learned is that it’s a Sunday night, and just like Boom Boom Room on a Monday… it’s about having a good time and playing fun music. And finding a balance of music that’s really fun and music that’s really cool. Because really cool music can be really introspective and boring, and people don’t want to go out to scratch their chins and think, “This is really cool.” Especially on a Sunday night when they could be home sleeping because they have to work the next day.
The challenge – especially since it’s a weekly – is to go through your music every week, and I never play the same set.
That stuff that nobody knows, the stuff that’s kind of out there. Like a favorite track of mine would be the Mood 2 Swing remix of “Crustatian”, this weird group from the 90’s that did downtempoish, kind of weird, almost Portisheady stuff. And Mood 2 Swing did this really awesome, super deep, tech House remix of it. But if you’re there to have fun, hearing this really cool deep introspective track is not going to rock your party.
And it’s not when you play it, it’s how you play it. You don’t want to play deep stuff early either because the people that are there don’t want to be bored out of their minds while they’re waiting for the club to fill up. It’s finding the balance. We love good music and like to find weird things to play that people don’t know what they are and want to know what it is. But at the same time, if you do too much of that you can lose people.
Have you thought about touring the QUEEN party?
We’ve attempted to do some exchange parties but none of that has really worked out. We haven’t really pushed it because it costs a lot of money to bring the hosts, the guests, and to make sure everybody is available…to make sure Derrick isn’t playing in Mongolia while me and Garrett are available. Also parties don’t translate all the time somewhere else. They work because they work where they’re at.
We are working on music. Garrett’s putting his own music out, him and I did a remix for Chez Damier called “The French Connection.”
I see that you’ve been traveling a lot overseas lately. Congratulations! Has it been due to the success of the party?
It’s been a lot of things. It’s been because of QUEEN, because of Gramaphone, because of Boiler Room, Steffi booking me to play at Panorama Bar in Germany, it’s been a little bit of everything. It’s also with Frankie being our resident and him passing away has brought a lot of light upon Chicago and House music. And people definitely started to appreciate the music and the scene more because of him passing away, realizing that most of these guys are going to be gone. This music has been ignored and not celebrated for a long time. People want to celebrate these veterans and founders of the scene. So it’s a little bit about that.
What’s the craziest request you’ve gotten?
There have been plenty of crazy requests but I don’t remember which one to be the weirdest. The only weirdest experience was in the beginning of a Frankie night I was DJing and these 2 girls walked into the DJ booth asking if that was the way to the bathroom.
Or the crazy Irish girls that stole Kyle’s headphones, and then I caught them on the way home and ripped the headphones out of the bitch’s hands. She wouldn’t let go though so we broke them in half. So I brought Kyle half of his headphones.
I love how you and Garrett go back and forth as a team by the way.
Garrett has gotten amazing as a DJ. Sometimes when he’s getting ready to mix out of my song and he’s about to cut into it early, I’ll mess with him and fuck with the pitch control so he can’t mix out of it. “Song’s not done yet, hello!”
Who are some of your upcoming guests we can look forward to?
We have Prosumer, Paranoid London [in September -Ed.], Dajae with Bernard Badie & Tony Humphries to name a few.